Playing fast and loose with the past is current fashion in the cinema. Christopher Tookey defends historical truth against political correctnessby Christopher Tookey / November 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in November 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
History used to be bunk. Now, thanks to the film industry, bunk has become history. Go to the movies this month, and you have a choice between American colonial history (Pocahontas), Scottish mediaeval history (Braveheart), 20th century Spanish history (Land and Freedom) as well as the history of space exploration (Apollo 13). Go to the video store, and there among the most prominent new releases are 19th century American history (Geronimo) and a revisionist view of American history since the postwar baby boom (Forrest Gump). Mostly, modern notions of political correctness have wildly distorted the truth.
There is nothing new in creative artists revising history to fit their own-or their audiences’-perspective. Shakespeare did it. The trouble is that this new collection of historical films takes simplification to the point of simple-mindedness.
It isn’t only Hollywood. The most tendentious of all the current films on release is Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom. The argument offered by Loach and his writer Jim Allen, that during the Spanish civil war members of the International Brigade sealed the defeat of the left by being Stalinist stooges, is unproven.
Although the film is set against the political in-fighting of the 1930s, it is much more informative about the present state of the sectarian left in Britain. It gratefully seizes the opportunity to put the boot into the communists now that they are down and out, and is transparently a counterblast to the pragmatism of Tony Blair, an inchoate plea for more idealism.
The Oscar-bound Apollo 13 has a very different hidden agenda. Politically, it is an antidote to the cynicism of Philip Kaufman’s 1982 film The Right Stuff, which saw the space race as a product of the cold war, and satirised spaceflight as a gimmicky public relations excercise by the industrial-military authorities. Ron Howard’s new film takes a deliberately blinkered, more hero-worshipping approach, and has become a rallying-cry for those Americans who wish to revive President Kennedy’s vision of space as the new frontier.